When it came to creating Château George 7 in Fronsac, I was well and truly an outsider. I have raised a few eyebrows because I am British, I had no previous connection to Bordeaux, I do not come from a wine background and in fact, had no experience of the wine industry at all. To top that, I am a woman doing it on my own. So, as a real outsider, how did I approach creating a new wine château and wines along with a wine tourism business?
If you are thinking of launching into the unknown in any industry, here are 7 of my learnings that might help:
#1 - Make the first move
Make the first move and don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms. Offer to help, get involved, and support others. This applies to local suppliers or industry bodies, potential collaborators, and prospects or even friends. It is essential to do this right from the start so you can settle in faster, build your essential local network more quickly and get a better view of the competitive landscape. And it will also help conquer any loneliness if you are doing this on your own in a new area. I started conversations, I rang up local wine tour guides, I got accredited as a tutor at the Bordeaux wine school and I wanted to help the Fronsac appellation who now have their website in English. I am so thankful for all the collaboration, support and love coming back!
#2 - Keep Mum
Keep quiet until you know what you are talking about. And even then, gain respect for what you do and not what you say. I kept my lips sealed and my eyes and ears open as I learned about the area, traditions, politics and the ‘way things are done’ in the largest (and iconic) wine-growing region in France and my new chosen industry. I was humble, open to ideas and curious. People soon shared their stories (as folks like to talk about what they do) and I love listening and I am still learning from them. I do not spout forth on my plans and ideas until I am sure what I can deliver, when and how.
#3 - Draw on local knowledge
Engage and leverage local knowledge which you would take years to acquire. While you will have some know-how (and so many skills from other areas which are invaluable), don’t underestimate all the experience and knowledge that local people can bring to the business. I was adamant that the team would have deep knowledge of the terroir, climate and challenges that I will take many, many years to learn. And this has definitely paid off in the quality of my wines. It has taken them to a level I could only have hoped for at the outset.
#4 - Face forward
Don’t be distracted by what everyone else is doing. While you need to understand the direct competition, you can waste a lot of time and energy looking sideways and worrying about what everyone else is doing and panicking that you are not doing the same. Social media has a lot to answer for on that front. Keep your head down , face forward and plug away towards your goals.
#5 - Go at your own pace
“More haste less speed” will often ring true if you rush into decisions and investments in a new industry without enough reflection and understanding of the landscape, and possible pitfalls. I have high energy and move at high speed but I knew that I could make some costly mistakes if I ran too fast. Of course I still made some mistakes, but I waited over 2 years before launching into winemaking so that I could get myself into the best possible position and reduce the risks. I followed a friend’s advice to start small to lower the capital investment until I was sure of the potential of my wines. And thank goodness I did, because the pandemic hit after starting the construction of a tasting room and restrictions were still in full swing when I bottled my first wine and couldn’t travel to share it. I am now up to full production but taking it slow meant I didn’t run into financial difficulties due to unforeseen challenges. This is meant to be fun – where is the fun in stretching myself too thinly too fast until I can’t sleep at night?
#6 - Build credibility, Be confident
Have confidence. Don’t feel that because you are new to the party, your product is worth any less than those who have been there for years. Through training (I embarked on the 2 year DipWSET when I purchased the property), I built my confidence via a deeper understanding of the broad wine landscape and the qualification has certainly brought me some credibility – especially at the outset before I even had wines to share. By reaching out to help neighbours at busy times, I not only learned at the coalface but it grew my confidence and built bridges. I realised I had many skills and know-how from other areas to bring to merge with that local deep know-how (#3 above). Now, the quality of the wines and the visitor experience are reinforcing the credibility of Château George 7 and building my confidence. A virtuous circle.
#7 - Thicken your skin
Don’t take it personally, if you are not immediately flavour of the month as a newbie. Keep your head down (see #4 above) and keep smiling and positive. Earn your stripes and then any future praise or acknowledgement of what you do and achieve will be well earned. I was delighted to be told by a French winemaker neighbour: "Sally, I have to say, I really admire you and what you have achieved". As I always say when folks ask me how I have been received in the area as a newcomer I say "Everyone is great to my face and I have no clue what they say behind my back!". Joking aside, I have been amazed how much support and recognition I have received and often from unexpected sources.
So as you take a deep breath and dive, be sure to enjoy the journey and don’t get hung up on the fact that you started as an outsider. Before you know it, you will be part of the landscape.
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